Art students pitch in to help medical examiner identify remains

Students here at the New York Academy of Art are helping the city's medical examiner's office work through its backlog of 1,200 sets of unidentified remains.

"This is the final ... effort to do it. This is after we have exhausted DNA and other methods. This is simply to trigger someone's memory," said Dr. Bradley Adams, the medical examiner's forensic anthropologist.

Adams scans and copies actual skulls and gives the 3D-printed replicas to students. Crime scene evidence can help determine victims' sex, race and hair color, but little else, so the skulls dictate the details: the size of their eyes, the structures of their cheeks and nose.

Zoe Suesen-Taylor created one of the 11 sculptures. Asked if she felt any pressure working on this, she said "there was an enormous amount of pressure, responsibility. It was a daunting task."

John Volk is the academy's director of continuing education. He says forensic sculpting is more science than art. He told the art students to check their creative license at the door.

"The were told they could not be creative at all in this project. ... It was difficult for them."

The images are now in a national database and the sculptures are on public display. Forensic facial reconstruction has proven to be successful. It helped identify 14-year-old Tara Exposito, whose remains were left unidentified for more than a year until a sculpture was created.

"My biggest hope is that we have - is that we give someone their identity back, a name to go with the face now and bring closure to victims' families. That's a big thing."

Victims finally brought out of the shadows, for everyone to see.

  • Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.